Training Camp Tour: Can Tyrann Mathieu earn PFF's highest CB grade again?
GLENDALE, Ariz. – As the PFF training camp tour winds down, the West Coast leg of our trip nears its end. On our second to last stop, we visited Arizona Cardinals practice at University of Phoenix Stadium. The NFC West-champion Cardinals return a roster that looks even better than the 2015 version, with key starters returning and an upgraded pass rush.
2015’s top-graded CB, Tyrann Mathieu, looks good in return to practice
The big story of Sunday’s visit to Cardinals camp was the return of Tyrann Mathieu from his knee injury. Mathieu’s talent is undeniable, and before he was injured, his run support and coverage grades both ranked No. 1 among cornerbacks (coverage grade tied for No. 1 with Chargers CB Jason Verrett). The question now will be how quickly can he return to form. On Sunday, he wore a large brace on his surgically-repaired knee but didn’t appear to be hindered in movement or emotion.
Mathieu looked to be itching for contact after so much time away from the game, and more than one receiver ended up on the ground in the practice as a result of Mathieu’s eagerness to get back to action. Mathieu’s intensity level was high even in drills that didn’t involve him. At one point during practice while the special teams units were on the field, Mathieu was standing on the sideline screaming to the referee about a false-start penalty.
Rookie Brandon Williams earning a starting CB spot?
Rookie cornerback Brandon Williams (Texas A&M) had a much-improved performance in his second game of the preseason. Williams’ development to this point stems from facing one of the best wide receiver groups in the NFL every day in practice, and from being pushed hard by the coaching staff. On Sunday, Williams struggled to hang with the Cardinals’ WRs vertically, and J.J. Nelson and Michael Floyd both beat him on deep post routes. Williams is going to take his lumps against the Cardinals’ wide receivers, but he has also made some plays. However, on one of Williams nicer plays of the day—a pass defense on a vertical route—his coaches didn’t praise his impressive pass deflection, but rather, scolded him for not intercepting the ball.
Williams’ build doesn’t fit the mold of a prototypical cornerback, but rather a safety or a running back with cornerback-type speed and athleticism. If the Cardinals can shape him into a starting cornerback, he would help form a physically-large starting CB duo with Patrick Peterson that can help in run support or blanket a wide receiver in man coverage. Williams’ chief competition for the staring cornerback spot—Justin Bethel—returned to practice on Sunday, but looked a bit rusty. The final two preseason games should determine who wins the job.
Other camp notes
– The Cardinals’ offensive skill players all appeared sharp in Sunday’s practice. Running back David Johnson looked big, fast, and elusive, and was targeted heavily in the passing game. Andre Ellington also saw a healthy amount of targets, and he still has the wheels to take it the distance any time he touches the ball. Expect these two talented pass-catching RBs to create big plays for the Cardinals’ passing game, and even to see the field at the same time on occasion to create mismatches and confusion for opposing defenses.
– Wide receiver Michael Floyd had a strong practice and consistently beat Arizona’s defensive backs deep for big plays. Floyd is going into a contract season, and for some odd reason, players tend to play well during contract seasons.
– Tight end Troy Niklas continues to have a strong preseason. He made some nice catches down the seam and looked like a truck on the move. While tight ends are largely blockers in Arians’ scheme, it was hard not to notice the physicality and athleticism that Niklas brings to the Cardinals’ pass game.